Bike lover’s pilgrimage to the racing isle
Andrew Bonamour reports on his experience of the legendary Isle of Man TT
It’s every motorcyclist’s dream to attend the Isle of Man TT, which takes place at the beginning of June each year.
Roughly 40,000 spectators descend on the small island that floats between the British mainland and Northern Ireland for the gathering. Many bring their own motorcycles, for a week of practice and competition, all of which culminates in the Senior Tourist Trophy (TT).
Legend has it that the start of the TT goes back to 1907, when motorcycle enthusiasts would head to the Isle of Man to test their machines because it had no speed limits — escaping the mainland where there was a staggering 5mph (8km/h) cap at the time. This was the era when motorcycling was just taking off and the need for speed was paramount. In fact, it’s what sold bikes — up until the 1860s, the fastest man had gone in the preceding 2,000 years was on horseback.
More than 100 years later and the race remains pretty much unchanged. The local government still turns 60.72km of undulating public roads (including 264 corners and an infamous mountain section) into a once-a-year racetrack for competitors eager to prove their skills and post the fastest time. And there still aren’t the pull-off lanes, catch fences, gravel pits or barriers that characterise many of the more famous European MotoGP tracks.
The concept might not have changed much, but the speed of bikes and the intensity of the crashes have. In its history, 164 competitors have been killed trying their luck on the TT.
Extreme hazards on the route include trees, buildings, old stone walls, even spectators who are just a few feet away and they are all reduced to a blur as racers fly by at speeds approaching 322km/h. It’s hair-raising stuff and death is always present — so much so that former TT winner Richard Quayle once stated: "If Roger Federer misses a shot, he loses a point. If I miss an apex, I lose my life."
But while the TT is widely recognised as one of the most dangerous events in motorsport, it is not generally marked by rides of horror or crashes.
And equally, it might seem paradoxical, but for the most part it is a beautiful and fast-moving experience, one where riders, passionate fans and good friends gather from around the world to share conversations and a spiritual viewing experience with one common theme, "the love of motorbikes".
And it’s only there, along with the thousands of visitors, many decked out in their sweaty leathers like motorcycling’s version of middle-aged men in cycling kit, that you truly appreciate the speed at which these iron horses travel at as they fly past.
You realise, standing along the road on what is called "Mad Sunday", why so many have made the pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere, to both view and do a lap of the circuit at the beginning of June. Television and YouTube footage really doesn’t capture the sheer exhilaration and it’s no wonder that the TT’s fanatical fans, many of whom attend year after year, think of it more as a religion than a motorcycling event.
As an avid rider, it had been a boyhood dream of mine to ride the TT. I finally had my chance prior to the actual races. Heading into the action on the Sunday, jostling with the swarms of other bikers as we entered the precarious 14km hill section with its sharp twists and turns and long straights, it was hard not to feel apprehensive.
This is a precision sport — calculate a corner incorrectly and things can go wrong instantly. My goal was to hit a speed of 100mph (161km/h) and I did it. The feeling was exhilarating. Unparalleled. I can only imagine how terrifying and exciting it is at 200mph (322km/h), a speed bikers actually do.